Tim McLelland acts as a whip for the Queen...pictures by the author unless credited otherwise
Unless you've been devoting your time exclusively to either football or Big Brother, you'll know that the RAF celebrated Her Majesty The Queen's 80th Birthday in style on 17 June, with a forty-nine aircraft flypast over Buckingham Palace. This year, I was invited to see the flypast from an unusual vantage point by joining two crews from No. 100 Squadron, who were tasked with the provision of 'whip' aircraft for the event.
Whip aircraft are required to fly with the assembled aircraft in order to assist the participating pilots with their formation-keeping. This year's flypast was divided into a series of nine elements, all separated by forty seconds, and while the pilots within each element created their own formation positioning, the whip pilot and observer are called-in to look at the formation from all angles, in order to establish that it looks tidy and symmetrical. Once everything looks good, the individual pilots then take visual cues from adjacent aircraft (or the lead aircraft) and use these cues to maintain formation once the whip aircraft has gone. That's the theory, and it does work pretty well.
After visiting RAF Leeming on 13 June to deal with paperwork, medicals, kitting-out, safety drills and so on, I returned a day later to join Flt Lt Lance Millward in Hawk XX329 as 'Windsor Whip Two' for the flypast rehearsal. Departing from Leeming, we followed 'Windsor Whip One' (flown by Flt Lt James Harris with photographer Geoff Lee in the back seat) down to the Norfolk coast, where we intercepted the various flypast elements as they assembled in a long racetrack pattern centred on Southwold, on the Suffolk coast. Sadly, the weather conditions were poor; Leeming was under a blanket of thick cloud with rain, while the flypast route was sandwiched under varying thicknesses of cloud and haze. For the rehearsal, Waddington was selected to represent Buckingham Palace, but as we headed out over the cold, grey North Sea, we didn't know whether the final run-in to Waddington would even be possible, so poor was the weather.
However, the planned rehearsal continued, and with some careful radar and radio work, we were guided towards the rear elements of the flypast, having decided to split our efforts into two halves; while 'Whip One' tackled the lead of the procession, we headed for 'Vulcan Combine' - an E-3D which was quickly joined by four Tornado F3s. Once they were all comfortably assembled, we were called-in to take a closer look, and with a bit of feedback from us ("…what do you think… number two needs to be forward and in slightly... number four is a little high…") the job is done pretty swiftly, and once complete we zip off to find the next formation - 'Tartan Combine', comprising of a VC10 flanked by four Jaguars. Next on our list is 'Batman' formation - a gaggle of nine Tornado GR4s from Marham, which already look crisp and tidy even before we make any comment. It transpired that one of their airborne spares had already done a little 'in-house' whipping before our arrival, so Flt Lt Millward merely congratulated the formation leader on their efforts (a wise decision considering that Marham's Station Commander was leading!) and we moved-on to 'Nimrod Combine' (a Nimrod flanked by four Tornado GR4s) while 'Whip One' went on along the projected flypast route to take a look at the weather, having already whipped 'Typhoon Combine' (four Typhoons) and 'Fagin Combine' (two Typhoons and two Jaguars, minus the lead TriStar that went u/s before take-off). By this time, Waddington had been declared "go" for the flypast, and we were reaching the end of our fuel reserves, and so we left the flypast route at Spalding and began our return leg to Leeming, while the flypast elements continued to Waddington before dispersing over Scampton. 'Whip One' didn't have quite enough fuel to make the journey, and popped in to Coningsby to refuel.
With the rehearsal declared a success (the reserve days on Thursday and Friday not being required), our next task was to fly down to Marham on Friday afternoon, so that we'd have sufficient fuel to stay with the formations along more of the Saturday flypast route that still centred on Southwold but continued into Essex and Greater London. Saturday's weather was much better and after some problems removing our Hawk from one of Marham's rubber shelters (on which the 'door' jammed partly closed) we made our way to the runway, ready to depart behind the Batman formation. Baking in the morning sun, we sweated-out a few minutes while the Tornados lumbered off in pairs, each making a full airfield circuit while another pair set-off to join the growing formation. Once the Tornados were all airborne we took the runway and headed out to a much brighter North Sea, only to find that the rendezvous heights (around 3,000 feet) were stuck in soup-like haze, which made the task of picking-up the various aircraft even harder than on the rehearsal day. Once again, my acclaimed long-range spotting skills (well the pilots were impressed!) came in handy and we were soon with 'Typhoon' formation in the holding pattern. Having swapped jets to fly with Flt Lt Harris, I was now looking at the lead elements, comprising of the Typhoons, the TriStar combine and the Nimrod formation. Because of their much slower operating speeds, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight traditionally slot into the flypast route from the Fairlop area so they're not part of the whipping/assembling process. Likewise the rear element (Red Arrows and Canberra) was treated as a separate package, slotting-in from the South East. Consequently, we never got to see the much-admired Reds/Canberra formation, as we wouldn't have had enough fuel to go and find them, even if we'd had the time.
With whipping complete, and the formations already making their way down the route to London, our task was complete and we even had a couple of minutes left to play with before our fuel call. I decided that we should go take a closer look at the solo C-17 as I figured it would be the only chance of ever getting up close to one in the air. We made a quick rendezvous, tucked in, pulled-up and rolled over the top to the left then back to the right, and that was it; time to head home with a burst of power and a sporty climb to 28,000 feet to get over the airways. Back up at altitude, Boulmer Radar vectored 'Whip Two' back up to meet us and we made our way back to Leeming, listening-in to the flypast aircraft as they passed over the Palace.
The Hawk pilots have a primary task (whipping and weather checks) and they cannot devote any time to photography until their work is done. Unfortunately, by the time that work is done, the Hawk's fuel reserves are almost gone, so there's no time to wander about trying to get pictures. Consequently, you have to try and literally grab shots when aircraft come into range, even if it's only for a second or so, but even this can be a real challenge when you're clutching a camera with one hand, and a reference chart with the other, trying to discuss the formation positions with the pilot, clicking the RT switch on and off, whilst manoeuvring around the various elements. The lighting conditions change rapidly so that one minute you can be in gloomy haze and murk, and then a second later you're in brilliant sunshine, so you also need to keep an eye on your camera's settings. Likewise, there's also a need to keep a careful eye out for stray aircraft, disorientation, radio chatter and so on. There's a lot to keep you busy and photography has to come pretty low on the list of priorities, in fact I probably got no more than five minutes of dedicated photography time in four hours of flying. Worse still, by the time the precious photography minutes come around, the elements are on their way to the 'target' (Waddington or the Palace) and by then the formations are widely spaced-out so that the pilots can relax until the final run-in commences, so you have to go with the circumstances you're presented with and get what you can. It's a sweaty, neck-twisting, stomach-clenching business and it can be very frustrating, but of course it's fascinating and just about as much fun as you can get on a Saturday afternoon! It's astonishing to see how much preparation, planning and hard work goes into creating just over five minutes of entertainment for Her Majesty, but judging by the television pictures, she was suitably amused!